Books I Read This Month - December 2012

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max

David Foster Wallace is one of my literary heroes, so I was incredibly glad to have stumbled upon this biography. The writing style is straightforward and to-the-point, which is effective for most of the book, but in discussing Wallace's suicidal thoughts it seems a bit disheartening, bordering on disrespectful. However, I found Wallace's life and literary career fascinating and inspiring. I must admit I teared up at a few parts. This is probably one of the books I've been most glad to have read this year.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I knew from the start this this book is Rowling's attempt to justify herself in the literary world apart from Harry Potter; knowing this, I was sure to expunge all judgement in comparing it to the Harry Potter series, but this brought to light other crucial perspectives.

For an "adult novel," in my objective literary opinion, much of The Casual Vacancy is tremendously juvenile. Numerous and unnecessary references to genitalia and the like are not what make a novel "adult." Adults do not, in general, use literature as an excuse to giggle at unmentionables or as an escape from the oppression placed upon them by their elders to remain innocent; that is what young adults do. Of course, profanity and nudity are welcome in this form of literature—assuming it serves a purpose other than as a means of defining a novel as "adult."

Secondly, if the dialogue and action are good—and Rowling's, the majority of the time, are good—then dialogue tags and descriptors become perfunctory. If a character says, "Casual vacancy [is the] proper term," then there is no need to explain to readers that he said it "pedagogically"; they effectively assume that the author thinks them unintelligent. The words the characters say and the context in which they say them should effectively infer the way they say it. If the audience is adult, as Rowling intended, there is no need for her to tell readers what to see or what to think; if the "what" of the story is explored thoroughly enough, the "how" and "why" of it will reveal itself in context—if the novel is "adult."

The subject matter of the book is certainly adult, and it is thoughtful, extremely well planned out, and fascinating; however, the writing style does not in any manner match the content. Rowling's experience in juvenile and young adult fiction has hurt her more than it has helped her in her endeavor to write an adult novel: adults readers do not need nearly as much hand-holding when it comes to inferring subtext as do younger readers. The Casual Vacancy is in dire need of a stripping of "telling" and an injection of "showing." The writing style is fit for teenage readers, but the content is definitely adult; it is difficult to pin down a genre or an audience for this unusual book.

There is some literary merit to this work, though, of course. I always try to look for a writer's strengths, and Rowling's is in world-building and character development. Her experience in the fantasy genre—where world-building is crucial—has paid off in that she has painted a miraculous picture of the small town of Pagford and its inhabitants, which are easily conjured up in the reader's mind. And the reader feels deeply for these characters, the town, and their outcomes as well.

This book starts off incredibly slow, the action hardly picking up until about page 50, and the writing style that consists of unnecessary repetition, redundancies, and lackluster flow is an understandable cause for putting the book down after only a chapter or two. Rowling has made a brave and noble attempt here, but in all honesty, I think she should return to juvenile and young adult fiction.


Unthology No. 3 by Various Authors

Vortex by Jean Stites

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo

Lunch with Buddha accompanies the characters from Breakfast with Buddha, expanding on Otto Ringling’s spiritual journey as a sequel, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel in its own right. The story begins with Otto taking a plane out West with his two now grown up children to release his recently deceased wife’s ashes at a special camping place. Like Breakfast with Buddha, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, has organized a road trip for Otto and Volya Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk to whom Cecelia is married and with whom she has a young daughter. After this trip, Otto’s children will be leaving for college, and he will be returning to work in New York.

There are numerous similarities between this novel and its prequel, namely that narrator Otto has recently experienced bereavement (his parents in Breakfast with Buddha) and must embark on a road trip with his brother-in-law. However, the new layers concerning Rinpoche’s daughter, Otto’s forthcoming life changes, and his developing interest in Buddhism bring additional spiritual elements to the story. Extremely similar in plot but quite different in tone, Lunch with Buddha is still definitely worth the read, even if some of the action may seem derivative of its predecessor.

Though I personally, as a fan of Breakfast with Buddha, was ecstatic to hear it would be having a sequel, I do not think I would be as excited to have “Dinner with Buddha” if it was announced: a final installment may be fulfilling in its completion of Otto Ringling’s spiritual journey, but it may be difficult for Merullo to write something new and engaging for the reader.

That being said, Lunch with Buddha is an expertly written book. Ambitious in his exploration of Buddhism’s influence in bereavement, Merullo has successfully captured the emotional and spiritual effects of the loss of one’s spouse. Otto’s journey encapsulates the guilt one feels when facing the prospect of moving on and the spiritual ache for answers about life after death. Humorous in some parts while ominous in others, Lunch with Buddha confronts the reality of heartbreak with both delicacy and eccentricity. Highly recommended.

Vortex by Jean Stites

Swept up in a mysterious cloud one gorgeous, serene night at sunset and dropped off in the middle of a crowd approximately onehundred years in the future, the narrator of Vortex, now a celebrity, struggles with the prospect of never returning to his or her (the narrator's gender is never specified, which neither adds nor subtracts from the story) previous home. Using the funds accumulated from celebrity—which occurred simply because he/she was the "first time traveler," magically dropping out of the sky from the near past—this nameless narrator attempts to recreate the "Vortex" to return home. However, the lonely accidental time traveler begins to develop feelings for the assistant hired to schedule appointments, such as with reality television shows, radio interviews, and potential financial contributors. Though the narrator continues to feel isolated and out of step with the world, some budding friendships begin to make this new place feel a bit like home.

The future of Vortex is not drastically altered, like many science fiction novels. Instead, only a few years past a time when any of the narrator's friends or family would be living, the technological advancements are created entirely for the purposes of work productivity and personal comfort or entertainment—as a matter of fact, this what one would expect of the near future. The narrator's favorite item, for example, is the "Miracle Rug," which acts as a surrogate for slippers, warming one's feet when one wakes and gets out of bed in the morning or after a few hours outside in the cold.

Conversational in tone, simultaneously playful and deep, Vortex explores the emotions elicited when human nature (love, comfort, and consistency) is disrupted. This journal-like tone leads to some long, occasionally dull passages with little to no external action, and the voice of the narrator may be a bit annoying, perhaps even boring, at first; however, if the reader decides to stick with it and delve into the emotional internal world of the narrator's mind—which is essentially the entirety of the novel—the payoff at the conclusion of the story makes it worth the read. Though the ending is not completely original—it's not where (or when) you are but who you're with—the journey toward the end is highly creative and enchanting.

Written in a diary-style, Vortex will intrigue light science fiction fans and those who enjoy character- or theme-driven novels. A very quick read, this book is not for those who require action and dynamic plots, nor those who seek fascinating technological gadgets in their sci-fi. It's not quite boring but definitely not exciting—a thought-provoking yet simple read. 

Unthology No. 3 by Various Authors

This collection showcases eighteen short stories by eighteen—both new and established—authors. Unlike most anthologies, the stories inside are not “a hit and a miss.” After finishing one engaging and well-written story, the reader begins the next, and is enthralled just the same. A few of the stories, of course, are not as memorable, intriguing, insightful, or effective as the few that stand out, but they all have their merits.

In “The Theory of Circles” by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, the narrator relays the FaceBook and Twitter updates and blog posts of an acquaintance, who documents his observations of his neighbors backwards through time, beginning when he finally decides to “unplug” from the internet and ending when one of the two neighbors first moved in. This story explores the capacity that friendship, and even observation of strangers, can have in helping an individual self-actualize and come out of their shell. It is cleverly written and a fascinating read.

“Trans-Neptune,” the collection’s longest story, by Ashley Stokes, follows a woman over the course of one day as she struggles in dealing with the fame of her scientist husband, who discovered a new planet in the solar system and whom she discovered has been having an affair. Determined to get revenge on him by having an affair herself, she learns from the obnoxious hotel staff the value of dignity and the influence of lust. The characters shine in this novelette, for their gruesome honesty and especially for their flaws.

Gordon Collins’s “Even Meat Fill” and Ian Chung’s “The Triptych Papers” are the collection’s highlights, exploring the psychological consequences of human nature in two very different but magnificently effective ways. Both, but perhaps especially “The Triptych Papers,” stick with the reader long after they’re over, leaving behind a labyrinth of psychological contemplation.

Overall this is an outstanding collection of short stories, perfect for the literary-minded reader seeking something with depth and intelligence in the face of our bombardment with a slush pile of lowbrow, contemporary books.

IWSG: What Happens When You See NaNo as a "Competition"

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, it's time for the winners to either start editing or move on to something new.

I however, am not a winner. I did not expect to be, and I'm not at all upset by it. I had no time to finish; 50,000 words was not realistic, and I knew it.

However, I was in with a great group of NaNoers in my area, and almost everyone in the group succeeded. Throughout the month, I was motivated by them as competition; we turned NaNoWriMo into a race (or maybe that was just me, using them, per se). As the 30th crept up on us and I saw that I was not going to make it, I began to feel dejected. Some of them were doing it just for fun, just to see if they could write a novel in a month---I did it because I am a writer. Seeing them succeed and me fail turned me resentful.

But only for a moment. Their encouragement over the month was uplifting, their encouragement after the month was over even more so. Those who wrote 50,000 words in a month just to see if they could do not bother me in the least---in fact, I appreciate and respect them. They now know what it is like for the individuals who call themselves writers, attempting what they did, but every month out of the year. They wrote with word count in mind, with little regard for quality or the end result of publication in mind; now they understand what their writer friends' lives are like---looking at us, they have to image what the stress of reaching word count must be like with the prospect of others reading and judging it afterward in mind!

A suggestion to my writer/blogger pals: Do not resent those NaNoers who finished while you failed. Respect them. If you believe that you are a true writer, and if you have the courage to continue writing your manuscript, they will respect you too.

Peace, Aimee

Books Released This Month - December 2012

An End to All Things by Jared Yates Sexton
Short Stories
21 December 2012
A collection of short stories about post-9/11 Midwesterners in the face of unemployment and uncertainty.

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta
17 December 2012
When her job takes her back to her home country of Nigeria, a  young woman observes drastic changes in her family and the urban landscape of her home.

Tempestuous by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes
Young Adult Fiction
18 December 2012
In this retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, "it girl" Miranda Prospero finds herself handcuffed to loner Caleb after a storm shuts down the mall where she works, locking her and the shopaholics inside.

Finding Claire Fletcher by Lisa Regan
6 December 2012
The morning after a romantic evening with a young woman, a detective discovers that the woman, who left a mysterious note before leaving in the morning, may be the girl who was kidnapped right from her front yard ten years earlier.

Books I Read This Month - November 2012

I had a hectically busy month! Hardly any time to read! Here are the books I read this month...

Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon

I read this 1) for the purposes of research for my novel and 2) because I am extremely interested in the concept of extraterrestrial life. This book explores the history, science, and cultural aspects of the belief in and search for life on other planets. Very entertaining and informative, but I think it focused way too much on our solar system, particularly on Mars and Venus. I was surprised at how much of the science I already knew. This is a great book for those who want an analysis of the possibilities of extraterrestrial life from the perspective of a true scientist, but written in an entertaining and non-jargon-filled way.


As It Is on Earth by Peter M. Wheelwright

The Parallel Conspiracy by Richard Paul Lori

Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall by Jill Koenigsdorf

Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall by Jill Koenigsdorf

Divorced and having just turned forty, Phoebe has begun to feel jaded, wasting her artistic potential designing bottle labels for a winery in California, but when the ghost of twentieth-century artist Marc Chagall appears to her and influences her paintings, a fantastical new adventure begins. Chagall convinces Phoebe to take a vacation in Paris, where one of his long-lost paintings is being delivered to an art collector by a thief. There, Phoebe meets a handsome businessman named Ray, two playful sister witches, and the old woman who had stumbled upon the missing painting during World War II. At times Charlie Chaplain-esque in its humor and action and at other times melancholy in its portrayal of the loneliness and solitude of artists and their art, Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall is an intriguing and original, yet predictable read.

Multiple characters introduced quite early in the book may befuddle the reader, but the plot soon smooths out after a few chapters; however, though every characters’ motivation is apparent and personality consistent, there are far too many characters for the reader to grow fond of any one in particular. It may be easy to root for protagonist Phoebe to get the painting away from the art thief, to end up with Ray, and to return to her art career, but the roles of the sister witches and of the pivotal old woman, Bernadette, are not quite fully realized until close to the end of the novel. The purpose of the witches’ powers is not apparent and even Chagall himself, in ghost form, serves mostly as a deus ex machine for Phoebe; overall, the supernatural elements do not add much to the story.

The strength of this novel, though, is in Koenigsdorf’s writing style. She provides a rich atmosphere of Phoebe’s garden and summertime Paris, and the dialogue brings great personality to many of the characters. This is a fun read for fans of contemporary novels, especially those who enjoy subtle supernatural, mystery, and romantic elements. 

The Parallel Conspiracy by Richard Paul Lori

Feeling helpless in his marriage with a domineering, ungrateful wife and in his work where his incompetent boss takes all the credit, computer programmer John Fuller has transformed from a shy, nervous, nerdy kid into a passive, nearly-hopeless adult. But when one rainy night he crashes his car and is thrust into a parallel universe, he meets the sweetheart Sue, who is recovering from the mysterious death of her father, Manny—and looking into his top-secret work in electromagnetism. Fitting the pieces together, Sue and Fuller dodge government agents at the laboratory and discover that some of Manny’s coworkers are sending weapons into another universe with plans to destroy the parallel Earth and harness the energy it contains. Sue and Fuller shift into the parallel universe—one of many to which they will travel—and embark on a wild series of adventures. The technology is thoroughly explained and remarkably plausible, and the exploration of parallel universes is a thought-provoking concept uniquely rendered here.

Some of the phrasing is occasionally elementary—for example: "Gazing into her eyes for a long second, the compassion of their calming blue seemed to envelop him. A gentle smile came to her face and she turned, this time Fuller not stopping her."—but it does not detract from the story. Some clichés, particularly in scenes with interacts between Fuller and Sue, may cause an eye roll or two, but the development of the characterization of both these two provides a convincing foundation so they never fall into the trap of archetypes. While Sue and Fuller both possess some clichéd traits, both are strong, dynamic, and loveable; the narrative draws the reader directly into their thought-processes, shifting between characters smoothly and skillfully. 

The Parallel Conspiracy begins with the bewildering mystery of It's a Wonderful Life, swiftly transforming into an action-packed adventure, like Indiana Jones (featuring artificial intelligence, Greco-Roman societies, a bit of Tarzan and Jane, and gun-wielding CIA agents), but in the end, it is a unique, ever-shifting novel, with characters you can’t help but root for. Female lead Sue brings a fresh and loveable face to the sci-fi thriller, and the action will sweep you off your feet.

As It Is on Earth by Peter M. Wheelwright

After a divorce, young history professor Taylor Thatcher begins to take a deeper interest in his rich family history of Maine Puritans, arriving in New England on Mayflower and settling on farm land for generations. Traversing the landscape of his past, Taylor prepares for his birthday, which he shares with his younger half-brother, Bingham, and which happens to fall on Columbus Day of 1999. At this family reunion, he must confront both his past and those who covered up family secrets, while simultaneously dealing with the confusion of a growing attraction to a student, Miryam.

When conjuring up an image of a history professor, most people’s conceptions take the shape of a dusty old man dictating history dryly to his bored class, but Taylor Thatcher—and certainly the author as well—has an emotional tie to the past. Rather than simply finding the facts, dates, and stories fascinating, he has an introspective relationship with history, connecting with the people and the personal challenges they faced regarding family, science, and religion. Digging deep into the root of the human individuality in the context of culture by exploring Native American and ancient Mexican anthropology, as well as the pilgrims who settled on the East Coast, Wheelwright weaves a cultural tapestry of an individual’s relationship with nature. The family aspect—though Taylor’s family has an unusual genetic dynamic, his father marrying his late wife’s twin sister to conceive his younger brother—illuminates the human capacity for forgiveness and respect for one’s heritage.

With artistry, the language of As It Is on Earth is rich and intimate, though short, clipped sentences—which are meant to mirror Taylor’s introspective voice but occasionally border on pretentiousness—often slow the story down, the slowness allows the reader to savor the text rather than get bored of it. The characters are splendidly drawn, Taylor’s thoughtfulness and sensitivity deep; much of the story necessarily takes place in Taylor’s memory, leaving the reader wanting further nourishment concerning his relationships with his family in the “present day” of the narrative.

The natural setting and luxurious history are beautifully crafted, the territory of the novel arguably the strongest aspect. Atmospheres of an archaeological trip to the Yucatan, a childhood spent on a farm in New England, and even a professor’s office setting give this book a heart bent on rediscovery and not a simple knowledge of the past so much as an understanding of it and its effects on the present human condition.

Living Vicariously through Your Characters

In reference to my IWSG post earlier this month, I have officially asserted and claimed my passion and my future in the area of writing. Now—just like when you have to sit down and focus all your energy on that one homework assignment or that one tricky page of your novel—my mind has started to wander off and want to do everything that has nothing to do with writing. The writing, though, is, surprisingly, still going quite well despite this; but in my mind-wandering, I have come across something which I am shocked to realize I either failed to remember seeing (that’s doubtful) or simply haven’t seen before.

Because I was already missing my interest in physics while only three days into NaNoWriMo (though physics plays a significant part in the novel) at the beginning of which I had promised I would focus all my attention on the manuscript, I started watching The Big Bang Theory, which was already one of my favorite programs but of which I had not seen all the previous episodes. Upon watching this episode, this scene in particular, I got a bit giddy: the thing is, I live approximately 10 miles southeast of Traverse City, MI, and I have been inside said agricultural center. Obviously it is not a secret military supercollider (or is it?), but that is beside the point.

To portray my point effectively, I feel I must share with you the one (long) sentence summary of my novel:

The beliefs of a tight-knit community have been stretched to their limits, but even as a soldier returns home from Afghanistan to care for his young daughter after his wife’s sudden death, as an introverted boy on the brink of teenagedom plots revenge on school bullies and his obsessive-compulsive mother, and as a speculative college student wrapped up in her astronomy studies begins to lose herself in a relationship with her rekindled childhood flame, the residents of this small town on the shores of Lake Michigan must learn to stick to their convictions more than ever when eerie sightings in the night sky bring fear, defensiveness, and mistrust into the core of their decisions.  

If it is not apparent, this story takes place in an eerily Traverse-City-like town—and I am doing more than drawing from my environment to develop this story. In all of the characters I can sense some aspect of myself, and I have either accentuated or dialed down certain aspects to shape the characters in such a way that they are each unique but that I can still relate enough to them to be able to convey their emotions and experiences convincingly. I have mentioned the contents of this scene from The Big Bang Theory in the story, though not naming it directly, to disguise the reference and to create a sort of inside joke for myself and those who will see through the reference (most likely just my friends). But of course, there are hundreds of threads that transcend the story and resonate with me.

Aspects of a writer’s life often—as a matter of fact, almost always—seep into the writing. Writers can draw from their relationships, their emotional struggles, and their diverse medley of knowledge, bridging them together in the imaginary world of their story. The more they can relate to their characters, the more accurately they can portray them.

However thin the line between fiction and truth is, the characters in the story are always pivotal. The shape of a character in a writer’s mind is formed through the writer’s own experiences and his or her relationships with other people. A science-loving writer can develop a scientist character, focusing on the frustration of her life not going exactly as she planned. But some of the other characters that populate the world of the story may resonate with the writer even more so than the main protagonist. And not only the characters’ personalities but their emotions—even when their circumstances are altered—and their relationships, mirror those of the writer.

Writing can be cathartic, even fiction: an outward manifestation of the writer’s frustration. It’s not necessarily a way for a writer to live vicariously through his or her characters, per se, but it can be a way for the writer to utilize the knowledge and experience gathered throughout life in a positive way, rather than a destructive way, or simply rather than not using it at all.

How much of your life to you allow into the creation of your story’s world?

Peace, Aimee

IWSG: Only One Option

In case you haven't noticed (you probably haven't), I recently deleted my Twitter account. There was really only one reason that influenced my decision to do this, and that was that Twitter has been a major distraction for me. While I only followed a few dozen people, I found myself procrastinating concerning my writing, using "networking" as an excuse.

Yes, networking is an important part of a writer's career, but there is something more important than sharing your writing: the actual writing itself.

My procrastination had gone too far, and I was getting very little writing done, so I decided that a few things had to go (especially with NaNoWriMo going on this month!), Twitter being number one on the list. Not doing much writing was taking a toll on my self-confidence, even though I was doing well in other areas (work, school, exercise, etc.).

And then I read the book The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. I stumbled across the following quote, which opened my eyes to the artist's life choices:

"I wonder how many people get sidetracked from their true calling by the fact that they have talent to excel at more than one artistic medium. This is a curse rather than a blessing. If you have only one option, you can't make a wrong choice. If you have two options, you have a fifty percent chance of being wrong" (48).

Everywhere I look I see something new and exciting I want to do; I only have one life, so I want to fit in everything I can! However, upon reading this quote I realized something about myself: I am a writer.

Well, obviously I knew this already, but there's more to it than that: Being a writer is nonnegotiable. I have to do it. I didn't choose it; it was the only option presented to me—and so I grabbed it, because without it I'd have nothing.

So that's why I've been shying away from spending so much time on the internet, to carve out more time for my writing. I have enough distractions already!

Peace, Aimee

Here We Go A-NaNo-ing

Alright fellow writers—it's time for NaNoWriMo. I tried participating the past two years, failing miserably. But this year I am determined to finally hit the 50,000 word mark in a month. I have a safety net of the FaceBook Nerdfighters (because I have to admit I am quite the nerd), as well as the lovely folks over on the Bransforums, but I would love the support of my fellow bloggers to keep me accountable for my word counts! I've had trouble in the past meeting the daily goal, and all those unwritten words add up to the point of no return, where it is impossible to finish the 50K by the end of the month.

Who else is participating in NaNoWriMo this year? You can find my NaNo profile here if you'd like to add me. Thanks!

Peace, Aimee

Books Released This Month - November 2012

The Balloonist by MacDonald Harris
6 November 2012
In 1897, three adventurers take a hot air balloon ride on a voyage to be the first people to visit the North Pole.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
6 November 2012
A young farm wife in Appalachia stumbles across a climate-change-phenomenon in the forest that draws her into a battle between faith and reason.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
13 November 2012
A Cambridge student undercover for the military intelligence begins to fall in love with a promising young writer.

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo
13 November 2012
Sequel to Breakfast with Buddha, a middle-aged, middle-class man takes a road trip across the US with his new brother-in-law, a Buddhist monk.